Last month Newt Gingrich spoke at the Society for Neuroscience. I took some notes:
The Society for Neuroscience meeting is a meeting of about 30,000 scientists who study the brain. Basically, you have the population of a small town, complete with small town gossip, invade San Diego, Miami, or some other sub-tropical town with a lot of hotel rooms. In addition to studying the brain, the one thing that most members of the society have in common is that most of their paychecks are granted courtesy of American and European taxpayers. Which is why I was a little surprised to find out Newt Gingrich was to give a speech there. Remember, it was Newt Gingrich who shut down government during the Clinton administration.
Some of the senior members of the society remember that Gingrich and the ’98 congressional GOP doubled the budget of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the administrative body that cuts everyone’s checks, indirectly funding the meetings themselves. I once had lunch with the President of SfN, who remarked that she had to bow and scrape to the GOP, and how through clenched teeth she would proclaim, “Thank you for doubling the NIH budget” to each GOP congressman with which she met. So, I was a little surprised to see Gingrich come into somewhat hostile territory. He started off quite innocuously, asking if we knew more about our field than politicians in Washington DC.
Gingrich hammered home the point that citizens have an obligation to educate their representatives, a fact that is especially true of government funded scientists. He proposed that each 6 months we spend 20 minutes talking to our representative. After all, if we as citizen-scientists fail to inform our representatives of our needs, why should we grip about the ignorant decisions they make?
Newt is a master at staying on issues that would garner support from 60% of voters. He quickly reminded his audience that, while his philosophy was inherently based on free-market principles, the underlying base of intellectual energy comes from the NIH. He was able to double the NIH budget while cutting spending, ultimately balancing the federal budget, by simply setting priorities.
Newt provided some perspective which was inspiring and frankly phenomenal. According to many of the scientists he has listened to in the last year, the amount of scientific knowledge and information will increase by 4-7-fold over the next 25 years, and that 2/3 of this will be generated outside the US. How do you set priorities for the next 25 years when you can’t come close to predicting what new science will demonstrate, solve, or cure? In 1907, when Thomas Edison was generating 6% of the US GDP, how would you explain the SfN meeting? To a society that doesn’t have running electricity, cars, airplanes, computers, or powerpoint, how do you explain the benefits of brain scans or two photon microscopy? Interestingly, he made it a point to acknowledge that American primacy in the world depends in large part to the primacy of US science.
He went on to pose other interesting questions, like what is the decay rate of a PhD, and what does a PhD need to do to keep up with the 4-7 fold increase in knowledge over the next 25 years?
He wrapped up his speech on the importance of citizen advocacy by highlighting the divergence of literary and scientific culture, resulting in people who can either effectively communicate ideas that are perfectly wrong, or someone who knows stuff but is utterly incomprehensible. One real application he touched on was the preponderance of depression among the elderly. His thesis was that the elderly were often depressed because they were leading depressing lives. He talked about Silver Sneakers, a program which recruits widows to get together three times a week and exercise. It was found that among depressed elderly women, 61% had reduced their dependence on antidepressants thanks to Silver Sneakers.
On the other end of the developmental spectrum, Gingrich noted that adolescence was invented in the 19th century, and it was by and large a mistake. High schools are by and large centers of corruption in which many students cheat to get by and can’t wait to get out. He once asked a group of high school seniors if they could graduate in three years if they received a reward. Nearly all raised their hands. In two years, about half the class raised their hand. When he brought it down to one year, one student said, “How big was the reward?” Development must be redefined as a childhood and adulthood, with perhaps a 20 second interval between the two.
For the question and answer section, Newt brushed off the obvious questions about the lack of research funding due to the war (“As a percentage of our GDP, we are spending less on the military than at any point prior to Pearl Harbor.”) or stem cells, and stuck to his message of citizen advocacy.
In all, it was Newt Gingrich at his best, warming over a hostile crowd of scientists to the point that about half stood and clapped at his inspiring vision